Dizzee Rascal


(XL; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 22 September 2004

"Rascit" rolled onto the scene in a blaze of harsh beats and gritty hooks, unleashing his unique firestorm of ground-level bleakness and blistering lyrical stabs. It was an invasion of tinny production and timely novelty, when the Roots were in decline and much of hip-hop's staid uniformity made fat, content generals out of everyone excepting funk-footsoldiers like OutKast and co. Boy in da Corner (2003) ripped the face off of much of newly-priveleged gangster stereotypes, and shocked us into applause.

The formula is no longer so new, but the uniqueness of it retains all the vitriolic resonance it had before. Madvillain drops his sick underground efforts and some throwaway ones besides, Kanye "New P. Diddy" West plays the hip-hop scene both for profit and for funky embrace, but Rascal is still hungry in a way that remains inimitable. So Showtime is the expected return of garage-rap's Napoleon--still young and infinitely voracious for his place in history.

While Showtime has one or two more duds than its shock-assault of a predecessor, its continued siege is of essentially comparable caliber. All the braggadoccio and inventive flow is still in Rascal's arsenal. His beat cannonry is deeper and more accessible. And ultimately, his hooks, while less minimalist than they were, while cleaner than before, are nonetheless often more complex and claw their way into the brain with refined effectiveness. The strategy has evolved from tactical blitzkrieg to finely honed, measured strikes.

For some, Rascal's now-missing element of surprise might lead to conclusions that really, for all of Boy's groundbreaking impact, it was merely the establishment of formula that he now continues. Fair enough. But Rascal is smart; rather than make a stylistic jump that could translate into a career tumble, or stagnate where he is, he wisely develops his already considerable strengths in a few new directions. On Showtime, Dizzee doesn't adhere to a predictable gameplan of Nintendo sounds and sparse, ugly beats; a thick breakbeat makes an appearance on "Stand Up Tall," supporting some clean synth-hook descents as Raskit alternates effortlessly between stuttered lyrical spits and quick-fire deliveries. "Learn" is home to a chunky backbeat with eastern-styled plucky hooks and staggered measured deliveries. And "Hype Talk" is all skittering floor-scrape patterns with an unending lyrical barrage from the at once arrogant and cautious self-styled "new star."

As with Boy, Rascal's adeptness at matching his musical stylings to the attitude that permeates his record is remarkable. On "Face," an ominous rising synth moan neatly matches Dizzee's own anxious attitude both when it comes to the opposite, dismissive sex, and the distance between his current success and superstardom. "Respect Me"'s hesitating deep-bass Jaws-effect is as menacing as Rascal's curling lip when he spits "People are gonna respect me." Fortunately, what follows is the kind of lyrical and rhyme-scheme virtuosity that makes respect an inevitability, and the angry London-boy's highly minimalist hooks are also highly memorable to boot.

The desire to continue to prove himself may feel like a curse for Dizzee, but for the listener it results in earnest effort and smart variation. Some rappers get lazy after releasing a decent single; Rascal is still uncompromising and motivated after a full album of standouts. And Showtime is full of them as well. "Knock Knock"'s smattering of intermixed handclaps with deep bass beats and drowning synth effects stand strong under Rascal's impeccable delivery. The circus-cabaret vibe of "Dream" is so sickly sinister and clever that the track eschews a beat for its fanged clowny hook. But the album highlight "Imagine," delivers the greatest pleasures, contraposing nearly angelic flute-ish synth hooks with a second, faux-string synth hook, all atop a smoothly inventive beat. Dizzee's flows are short but effective, nicely blending his hope and pessimism into an honest tale of uncomfortably mingled self-doubt and grand aspiration. Closer "Fickle" even rivals "Imagine" with its two mingled hooks during its verses and a second set of sick hooks at chorus-time, as Dizzee drops the worried but ambitious lines, "I've got so much to say / and so little time."

The few missteps of the album, most notably "Everywhere," which relies only on a decent beat and Dizzee's delivery to carry its weight, are limited to perhaps two or three. The rest of the release is almost unbelievably consistent, where its predecessor was more susceptible to lapses in its abrasive attack, even if it had higher highs. Whether it speaks to greater tightness or maturation this time around, Showtime stays both more cohesive and more efficient than Rascal's ecstatically brilliant debut, limiting guest appearances to a relative minimum--not a small blessing. Frankly, Rascal doesn't need anyone else edging into his spotlight; he can fill it all on his own.

Whether Showtime will vault Dizzee to rightful superstardom is naturally mere cause for speculation. It's not a question of deserving it; this is his second high-caliber, high-impact release within as many years. But his fans may hope that the sense of second-tier-dom which pains their favorite London hip-hop prophet lingers a bit. Because as long as Rascal still feels like he's got something to prove, as he obviously feels on Showtime, the harder he'll try to make his mark, and the more tricks he'll pull out of his appreciably deep bag. After all, he's not about to get lazy--we can be sure he feels big enough to take Jay-Z's abdicated throne. Hey, Napoleon was only 5'4", and he didn't have too much trouble making an empire for himself, now did he?